8 Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Your Favorite Holiday Music
Posted on December 24, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 57 Comments
Each year we hear them, we sing them, we love them: The holiday songs of our lives. But how much do we really know about the great music of the holidays? Probably not as much as we think. And thus, to celebrate the holiday season, I am delighted to present to you 8 Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Your Favorite Holiday Music. I assure you each of these nuggets of knowledge is just as true as the one before it.
“Let it Snow”
While it is well known that the song was written in 1945 by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn in July, in southern California, on one of the hottest days of that year, what is not commonly known is that Styne and Cahn both penned the song while sitting in a large tub filled to the brim with ice cubes. “We just couldn’t get it right and we realized that on that day, in that place, we were just too far from inspiration,” lyricist Cahn would write in his 1975 autobiography, I Should Care. “A couple hundred pounds of ice fixed that right up.”
While the inspiration worked, yielding a number one tune and an enduring holiday classic, composer Styne unfortunately suffered a severe case of frostbite and narrowly missed having to amputate three toes on his left foot. He vowed never to work that way again. Cahn, however, used this “immersive songwriting” technique for several other songs, most memorably writing “Three Coins in the Fountain” in an inflatable pool while an assistant trained a garden hose at his head.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”
Frank Loesser penned this classic in 1944 and performed it as a duet with his wife at a party, signifying to guests that it was getting close to the time they should depart. However Loesser, whose successes with Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying were still years in the future, repurposed the song for an aborted 1946 musical called That Damned Winter, in which the fictional town of Penobscroggin, Maine was confronted with the worst blizzard in 150 years, leading the formerly placid citizens of the picturesque New England hamlet to engage in violence, murder and ritual cannibalism.
In the play, the song was performed in a plaintive, minor key, with the lead begging his love not to leave, lest she freeze to death in the howling wind outside or alternately be absconded with by the nefarious Tucker family next door, the only Penobscroggin family not to appear to suffer from the icy famine, although several of their neighbors had gone missing. She leaves anyway and disappears, with only a shoe to mark her passing, but in the emotional finale returns alive in the spring, having been sheltered during the winter by adorable woodland animals, which then viciously and hungrily attack the corpulent, slow-moving Tuckers.
Despite an impressive book by playwright Thorton Wilder, That Damned Winter lasted only one performance in an out-of-town tryout in Sacramento, at which several descendants of the Donner Party began a riot during intermission. After the debacle, Loesser, disheartened, burned the score to the play, saving only “Baby,” the rights to which he sold to film studio MGM.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
The story of Rudolph is most famously known as a song, memorably performed by Gene Autry in 1949. However, the song is an adaptation of a 1939 poem by Robert L. May, initially written at the behest of the Montgomery Ward department store, which originally published the poem in a coloring book, distributing 2.4 million copies during the holidays. Despite the light tone of the poem, “Rudolph” is known to be a vicious satire of one Rudy Padgett, a contemporary of May’s with whom the writer shared a bitter, lifelong rivalry. The reindeer’s famous red nose is actually a metaphor for Padgett’s alcoholism, with the other “reindeer” (Padgett and May’s companions) laughing, calling him names and refusing to play with him not because of bigotry but because they were mocking his lack of control around booze.
The original ending of “Rudolph” had a soft-hearted Santa letting Rudolph take part in the sleigh team over the objections of the other reindeer, leading to the sleigh being wrapped around a tree, six of the eight traditional reindeer killed and Christmas cancelled, much to the dismay of children everywhere. The executives at Montgomery Ward, however, said that this version was “too dark for a coloring book” and ordered a rewrite, which May grudgingly provided. Ironically and coincidentally, after the publication of “Rudolph,” Rudy Padgett sobered up and became a beloved member of his community, which only seemed to enrage May all the more. “My father would often ask Uncle Bob what the deal was between him and Rudy,” economist Steven Levitt, May’s grand-nephew, once wrote in Slate. “Uncle Bob would only mutter one word, darkly: ‘Pencils.’ We never learned what it meant. It’s become our family’s ‘Rosebud.'”
This immortal Irving Berlin tune first became a hit for singer Bing Crosby in 1942 and then in many subsequent years afterward — which became a problem for Crosby, who had initially doubted the potential popularity of the song and said so to songwriter Irving Berlin. Berlin responded by making Crosby solemnly promise at the end of each year to take a shot of whiskey, one after another, for each week the song was on the charts. This required Crosby to down 11 sequential shots of whiskey in early 1943, with subsequent and dangerous whiskey sessions after the ’45 and ’46 holiday seasons, during which time the song returned to #1 on the charts. The song would go on to sell more than 50 million copies.
Realizing the dimensions of the true, cirrhotic danger in which he had placed both Crosby and his liver, Berlin released the crooner from his vow, allowing him to substitute whiskey shots with tokes from a marijuana cigarette instead. This pleased Crosby, who in the 60s and 70s would advocate for marijuana legalization.
“Little Drummer Boy”
This 1941 tune by Katherine Kennicott Davis has charmed generations with its tale of a young drummer playing his instrument to the delight of the newborn messiah. But this simple tune had a difficult birth, as Davis changed the profession of the little protagonist a number of times before settling on the role of drummer. Davis’ archives at Wellesley College feature early drafts entitled “Little Trumpet Boy,” “Little Ocarina Boy,” “Little Didgeridoo Boy,” “Little Mime Boy,” “Little Short Order Cook Boy,” “Little Public Relations Intern Boy,” “Little Gastroenterologist Boy” and “Little Kid Who Just Wandered By and Was Confusingly Pushed Into a Barn Boy.”
Most of these drafts were only fragments, although Davis completed “Little Didgeridoo Boy” and had it performed for Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies during a 1964 trip to the United States. Menzies was reported to ask Davis how a didgeridoo happened to be anywhere near Bethlehem in biblical times. Davis would later write disparagingly of Menzies’ “Philistine musical nature” and shoved that version of the song into a box. In 2001, musical artist Madonna was reported to have considered recording the didgeridoo version with herself playing the instrument, but the idea was shelved to avoid offending Australian aboriginal sensibilities. Madonna went on to make the film Swept Away instead.
During the 1990 invasion of Panama by the United States, US military forces surrounded the Vatican embassy, where dictator Manuel Noriega had fled, and engaged in psychological warfare with the fugitive leader by blasting rock music, which he loathed. But it wasn’t until US played “Feliz Navidad” on a repeating loop that Noriega finally surrendered on January 3, 1991. In 2004, journalist Guillermo Hernandez, who was part of the US forces who captured Noriega, wrote in Rolling Stone, “His first words as he left the embassy were ‘That f**king song. That f**king song. Why couldn’t you just keep playing Led Zeppelin?'”
Prior to Noriega’s 1992 trial, the former dictators’ lawyers attempted to derail the trial by filing a motion suggesting that repeated playing of “Feliz Navidad” constituted a violation of the Geneva Conventions. The judge, while stating his sympathy for the argument, denied the petition.
In a 1994 interview with Q magazine on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the release of the Wings album Back to the Egg, producer Chris Thomas recalled that, after consuming a particularly large vegetarian burrito, Paul McCartney had bet Thomas one thousand pounds that he could write a hit song in the same amount of time it took him to unload his bowels. “I said, ‘you’re on,’ and he went to the loo,” said Thomas. “Five minutes later he came out, went over to the Prophet-5 I had in the studio, and there was ‘Wonderful Christmastime.’ When it hit number six on the British charts, he sent me a note that said ‘Right then, a thousand quid.’ I sent him an invoice for damages to the studio loo caused by his vegetarian burrito, which came to a thousand quid.” Thomas would later recant the interview, under mysterious circumstances.
In 1999, In an NME poll entitled “Explain ‘Wonderful Christmastime,'” 46% of that magazine’s respondents chose the poll option that said that the existence of the song proved there was no God, but that there might be a devil. Another 39% chose the response that said that yes, the song sucked, but at least it didn’t have Yoko on it, a clear reference to fellow Beatle John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (the War is Over).”
Rumors that George Michael wrote the hit holiday tune “Last Christmas” under similar circumstances are to date unsubstantiated.
In the late 1800s, this classic carol, first composed in 1816 by German priest Joseph Mohr, almost fell out of the Christmas canon when an anti-Austrian remnant of the Huguenot church suggested that the lyrics of the carol were not about adoring the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, but consuming them hungrily — thus the descriptions of both mother and child as “round” (i.e., deliciously plump) and infant Jesus himself as “tender and mild,” like a good veal. This culminated in 1871 with the scholarly debate at the University of Heidelberg in which it was suggested that any hint of messiah consumption could be explained away as an allegorical reference to transubstantiation. This led to outraged Catholic students burning down the lecture hall.
Eventually the controversy waned, but to this day kinderwurst, a tender, mild veal sausage served en flambe, is a popular seasonal dish in southern Germany.
Month ago I was having a Departure Meal when mates of mine and I had finished working on Iron Sky. As we were in Finland, we were having some kind of Reindeer Platter. Espying the tip of a red pepper on my pal Lee’s dish, I said “Dude! You got Rudolf’s nose!”
OK. Maybe you had to be there. I’m posting it anyway. Merry Christmas, Johnny, Kristine and Athena. :)
I read that Loesser’s wife resented him pulling out “their” song to put in a movie – until it was a huge hit and won an Oscar.
Is last sentence of “White Christmas” supposed to say “advocate for” rather than “advocate from?”
BTW, if you hate being called “Johnny” then sorry, John. I was flushed with enthused seasonal bonhomie.
You are one funny guy, John. Merry Christmas to you, Krissy, Athena, and all your family and friends.
And someday a young child will come across this scholarly post and use it as the basis for his December oral report. I can’t wait to see the YouTube video of his teacher’s reaction to the little known facts about Silent Night. Merry Christmas John! LMAO
When the North Vietnamese forces were advancing on Saigon, the song “White Christmas”, played on the American forces radio station in Saigon on the morning of 29 April 1975, and followed by a comment on how many shopping days were left before the holiday, was the code for those Americans still in the country to go immediatly to their evacuation points; this was the final order to get all American personnel out of the country. I wasn’t any where near there (I was stationed in Germany), but I was in the army at that time, and the song has always had an odd sound to me because of that.
You embellished a bit on the little drummer boy previous versions list I presume?
Given how many of the best Christmas songs were written by Jewish songwriters, I’m wondering how long we need to get past 9/11 to have a smash hit Islamic Xmas song?
Yesterday I downloaded copies of a PDF anthology contract2, filled it out, and snailmailed one to the editor of “Dark tales of Lost Civilizations” for my 10,000+ words “Sumeria to the Stars” which had previewed, in a longer version, on Facebook.
I depend on Facebook now, not just for strange covers of Xmas songs (heard Hanu-Calypso by Kenny Ellis on NPR this morning before opening my eyes) but for feedback oin currently my 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th FB-serialized novels (respectively Alzheimer’s War, Pirates & Dinosaurs, Lutetia, and I Am Hamlet’s Ghost). So I’m up to 1,129,400 words of fiction written since 6 July 2010, when I doubled my fiction quota to 2,000 words per day written. But its been closer to 5,000 words per day so far in December.
I never recorded an Xmas song. My one song on MTV was punk rock about the Titanic. I need to get back to that composer who contacted me on FB about setting my lyrics to music, for my Musical “Saddam! Saddam!” which gets me back to Mohammedan Xmas.
LOL, that was highly entertaining (and informative!). Thanks, John. ; )
You had me there for a moment, when I got distracted and forgot which webpage I was reading.
Then I looked at the URL and realized it. Thanks for the Christmas cheer!
Love the “Little Didgeridoo Boy” story but am struggling to imagine how the “Pa rum pum pum pum” bit worke dout on a didgeridoo! Thanks for the Christmas cheer!
“Wah Wom Wom Wom Wom.” Similarly, Little Dubstep Boy, “Wuh Wub Wub Wub Wub Wub.”
Little Mime Boy.
Little Mime Boy nerver made it to the manger because he wound up getting stuck in a box…..
Happy Holidays to the Scalzi family!
Imagine if Bing and Bob Hope had made a Road to movie based on Bing’s marijuana advocacy.
It’s called Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.
Oddly enough… last Christmas, during our dinner with friends, a few glasses of wine led us to our own version of “The Little Didgeridoo Boy,” complete with sound effects. Sung loudly around the table.
(Come, they told me… WOOOOWEEEEEWOOOOOOWUUUUWOOOOO)
Little Dubstep boy was banned from the stables for giving Jesus a headache. He much preferred the offerings of Little Techno Boy.
Thanks for including some statistically unlikely words and phrases (like “Penobscroggin”) in many of your anecdotes. That’ll make it easier to check back in a few years to see how much they get repeated around the web as strange-but-true trivia.
(Will the earlier ones get repeated more often, because the people who saw them are less likely to have read enough of the article to twig to what was going on? We must know, for Science!)
This list makes me regret not having children. If I had children I would so enjoy ruining some Christmas songs forever in their minds.
There are other people’s children.
It’s not nice to make people snerk chips and salsa up their nose. #traditionalholidaylunch
I was surprised and irked to find this on Wikipedia a couple of Xmases ago:
Autry’s 45 had no traction. It was released at the end of the **summer**.
It’s true that during the late 40s & early 50s WOR broadcast the Mitchell Schuster Orchestra coast-to-coast four nights a week from the Gloria Palace Ballroom with vocals by the guy who introduced “Rudoph” to the country and helped bootstrap the Autry version to rise to #1.
What caused my pique was the distortion that the crooner, linked to the fuller biographical article, left show business because of the mob connections to the proposed Bing Crosby biopic.
That Wiki article provoked me to author this Wiki article about someone who did lead a five-decade long career in Hollywood:
Before I forget, very funny, John. :>)
Ironically, the George Strait just began as I close this comment.
Pacem in Terris,
“George Strait version“.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” originally was a box office flop (in part because of the $3,180,000 estimated budget. That was 65 years ago. It is some sort of Multiverse Science Fiction, of course. Frank Capra, Jr., and Frank Capra III were at the Capra star today on the Hollywood Walk of fame. “We need more George Baileys [as played by James Stewart] and fewer Henry F. Potters [as played by Lionel Barrymore]. See HuffPost for coverage. Frank Capra lent me my first video equipment, as he preceded me at Caltech Thus launching me into my life of cinematographic/sci-fi crime.
“It’s a Wonderful Life”, 1946, Directed and Produced by Frank Capra
Frances Goodrich (screenplay) and
Albert Hackett (screenplay) and
Frank Capra (screenplay)
Jo Swerling (additional scenes)
Philip Van Doren Stern (story)
Michael Wilson contributor to screenplay (uncredited)
Joseph F. Biroc (director of photography) (as Joseph Biroc)
Joseph Walker (director of photography)
Victor Milner (director of photography) (uncredited)
Film Editing by William Hornbeck
Art Direction by Jack Okey
Set Decoration by Emile Kuri
Costume Design by Edward Stevenson…
And, speaking of Christmas music, original musical score written by Dimitri Tiomkin.
“Little Ocarina Boy?” The presence of ocarinas at the birth of Christ can mean only one thing:
Link was present at the nativity.
IT IS THE ONLY EXPLANATION THAT MAKES SENSE.
I girlfriend once told me that “Baby Its Cold Outside” is about an attempted date rape. I sort of laughed but with that in my head I have never been able to hear the song without knowing she has a very good point.
Bing was actually an incredible jazz singer before be became a mediocre crooner. I guess we know he was into the geef for a long time before Irv made the bet.
With “Wonderful Christmastime” it seems like Sir Paul flushed the song & recorded the BM
Rudolph was offered to Bing first but he turned it down. Autry hated the song, I never heard why he decided to record it.
As a Pastifarian I wish you all a merry Holiday and a joyful New Year!
“Prior to Noreiga’s 1992 trial, the former dictators’ lawyers attempted to derail the trial by filing a motion suggesting that repeated playing of “Feliz Navidad” constituted a violation of the Geneva Conventions.”
Although I never expected to be able to type these words in my life, I’m with urban legend Manuel Noreiga on this one.
Ay wanna weesh you a Merry Chreesmas, everyone.
This was absolutely brilliant. Nothing like delivering delicious historical lies to ruin people’s happy images of beloved songs. You’re a true saint, and this was a lot of fun to read. Now, I’ve got some favourite songs to crush.
It’s probably up there already somewhere, but in case it’s not, Manuel Noreiga should be Manuel Noriega.
For those inclined to call me a Grammar Nazi, please call me the Orthographical Stormtrooper instead.
Mel: I think I love you.
Thanks very much for the insider info on “Silent Night.” I always thought there was something a bit sketchy about “sleep in heavenly peas.” Joseph Mohr must have been one hungry dude.
Well, you had me for a bit, I admit. But isn’t the fiction of Catholics “burning down the lecture hall” Catholicphobia? [Fatuous comparison to other religion deleted for high troll content — JS]
Still funny, but the hypocrisy is glaring.
“I assure you each of these nuggets of knowledge is just as true as the one before it.”
And a very lawyerly festive winter solstice holiday season to you and yours as well.
Actually, Frankly, she didn’t have a point. “What’s in this drink” is 1940s speak for “you mixed it strong.” And she had to make those protestations or social norms wouldn’t be served. They agree that it’s cold outside based on the harmonies, so she wants to be there and stay. Also see “can I borrow your comb” for proof she’s staying and planned to stay. It’s a very willing seduction done in a lingo we don’t speak anymore.
“But isn’t the fiction of Catholics ‘burning down the lecture hall’ Catholicphobia?”
Seriously, Scorpius, could you not try to shit in every thread you’re in here? It’s gone beyond being tiresome. I’m tempted to punt you into moderation queue because to my mind you’re finally becoming indistinguishable from a troll. So consider this a warning.
Everyone else, please don’t bother responding to this.
Mel at 6.54, to me you are a Proof Ritter.
I didn’t actually figure it out until the Little Ocarina Boy, Little Didgeridoo Boy and Little Boy Who Just Happened…
Thanks for the laugh and Merry ChristmaKwanzaaFestivuHannukah!
Brenda @2011.12.24 22:06
I understand that novels, fantasy or otherwise, set during the medieval period require some modification to be readable by modern sensibilities — Cadfael, exempla gratis — but I was taught to read history without imposing my modern value system on the actors.
Though, I recall it — barely, we are as far away from Kennedy’s inaugural as Kennedy that day was from the middle of Taft’s incumbency.
You saved me from trying to argue the same point with the disadvantage of the “wrong set” of chromosomes. [Thar accusation has been leveled against me previously.]
I simply in awe that someone hasn’t addressed the evidence within the song of global warming.
Dean Martin lived in Southern California — clearly temperatures have risen in the interim. :>)
Pacem in Terris,
I am so citing this on Wikipedia . . .
“Little Gastroenterologist Boy”??? How does that work?
Happy Holidays to you sir and your beautiful ladies.
He toots. It’s organ music…
I suspect that only a true connoisseur would be able to distinguish between “Little Gastroenterologist Boy” and ““Little Didgeridoo Boy”…
Brenda Daverin –
Except he his pouring strong drink down her when she already admits she is tipsy, She want to go but he keeps pressing & breaking down her resistance. She clearly says “NO” half way through but he keeps trying.
Its all in how you interpret the lyrics. Sort of like deconstructing a novel, you can make it mean whatever you want if you try.
Let’s actually not have a debate about the meaning of the lyrics to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in this thread.
Agreed about “Baby it’s cold outside”, always sounded like a ploy to get into the young girls pants.
Scalzi @ 2011.Noel 11:46
I’d rather, anyway, discuss how my adopted grandfather impelled “Rudolph” to classic status.
May the light ever shine on you & your family [especially the Festivus Lass],
AKA the Solstice Kid
Sorry – it was meant to be a goof
For my next trick I shall demonstrate that “Fuzzy Nation” is an allegory for the unification of Italy after Napoleon’s demise.
Oh, well, THAT’S true.
Descendants of the Donner party rioted in the lobby….
That’s what did it for me. Up until then, you had me. (Though I had missed the lawyerly disclaimer sentence, I confess.)
These were priceless! I loved it!
if you’re looking for something to do with all the free time you appear to have, you could come over and grout my bathroom.
Interestingly enough, the words “round”, “tender,” and “mild” (i.e. their German equivalents) are not in the (original) German lyrics to Silent Night. The German focuses more closely on a very tired couple up alone all night with a curly-haired baby boy who needs to sleep, a scene familiar to nearly all parents.
They changed them after all the unpleasantness. Yes. That’s it.
If that’s the true story for Wonderful Christmastime, I’m not sure I want to know what McCartney was doing when he created the B-side, Rudolph the red-nosed Reggae…..